Books read, late September

Daniel Abraham, The Widow’s House. Best read quickly so that one can focus on the dragon and the banking and not on saying, “Ugh, Geder, shut up.” I mean, dragon! Banking! But: Geder, shut up. This is the fourth book in the series, and I really think it would be completely incomprehensible if you hadn’t read the others. There are spiders where? The spiders and the dragons relate how? What? What? So really, don’t start here. Dragons and banking, go to the back of the line. The start of the series. Whatever. And don’t read too slowly, or you may need to smack some characters.

Tina Connolly, Silverblind. Discussed elsewhere.

Frances Hardinge, Fly By Night. I am grateful to Marie Brennan for pointing this out to me, because its marketing hits some of my bad buttons, but the book itself is not like that. (Basically I don’t like it when people pat themselves on the back about how their chosen profession is the really great amazing one that is better than all the others, and writers are not exempt from that. The cover and blurbs of this book suggested, wrongly, that it might fall into that category.) Anyway, there are times when Hardinge is trying a bit too hard for the whimsy for my tastes, but there are conspiracies and coffee shops and things, and it is good fun. There is much rushing about, and if you want much rushing about and many secret signals, it is that kind of book. I did have a bit of difficulty with the goose feathers being white, because that’s just not what we have here, but I did eventually get my brain to behave.

Edgar Holt, The Making of Italy, 1815-1870. Very much what it says on the tin. This is an old book I picked up used, and it goes over the basics of the Italian unification–if it was breezier it would have been called “Garibaldi and All That,” but that would have misled a person into thinking it was breezy, and it wasn’t. It laid out the straight path. The obvious background. What Pius IX was doing. What Victor Emmanuel was doing. What the Sicilians were doing. It is useful, and I will keep filling in bits of this, because I am left with plenty of questions. But that’s how this sort of thing works.

Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata, Hikaru no Go, Volumes 4-8. Several more volumes of melodramatic teenage Go manga. Do you want melodramatic comics about Go, wherein stones are placed with a ringing “KLAK”? Because this is that. Yep. It sure is.

Kameron Hurley, The Mirror Empire. This book is vast and contains multitudes and multitudes of people. So many multitudes. There are cool things going on with plants and parallel worlds; Kameron has given herself room, with the large cast, to ring changes, to be an epic fantasy that is really epic, and yet she hardly goes any of the same places that other epic fantasies go. I will flag that there is a domestically violent relationship fairly close on here, and I didn’t find it less distasteful for being in directions less expected in our culture–that wasn’t the point, one wasn’t supposed to find it any less distasteful, if you think Kameron was endorsing it, go back and read again, but if your background is such that close views of domestic violence will upset you, this one is vivid enough that it should probably be flagged, even though it’s a fairly small component of the book.

Emmi Itaranta, Memory of Water. This worked best for me as an exploration of emotions and symbols and not really as a work of science fiction. It’s Finnish post-apocalyptic stuff, and I just didn’t believe in the future Finland in the book, in a pure physical sense. Socially, possibly, once you had the postulates. But scientifically, eh, no, not really. But there was a lot of water and tea and hiding, and I liked those things. I liked the experience of reading the sentences, when I could stop thinking about the hydrology.

Gwyneth Jones, The Grasshopper’s Child. Kindle. This is a YA with a substantially local/domestic focus, in the world of her Bold as Love series. If you want this book, you really want this book. Oh my did I want this book. (Pamela, I’m pretty sure you want this book!) The protag is a teen who has to care for old folks, as most teens in her culture do, and I would be interested to see how it works for someone who doesn’t have the previous five books. It’s an entirely different set of main characters, with cameos by the protags of the previous five books, but many of the worldbuilding implications and their importance–which are crucial to the mystery plot, I suspect–are sketched in as reminders rather than filled in thoroughly. But having had the previous five books and loved them, I was very fond of this, both for more of the world and for Heidi herself and her friends.

Sebastian Junger, War. The account–largely a psychological analysis–of front line American troops in Afghanistan, by a journalist embedded with them. Junger talked about how this kind of war changes young men, what it asks of them and by extension what we as a country are asking of them if we send them to this kind of war. I felt that he neglected to account for how much the particular front-line troops he was writing about were self-selecting, though, which doesn’t mean that we should be asking them to self-select into those situations, but it does raise questions about what we do with young men of the backgrounds some of them described and the extreme combinations of hormone balance and reaction time some of them seemed to have if we, as a society, are not throwing them into combat situations. Junger was acknowledging that the front line troops he was dealing with were in many ways different from the armed forces as a whole. He wanted to talk about the bravery and intelligence of the men he was dealing with, which is valid, and I think that he felt he needed to elide the ways that their specific kinds of bravery and intelligence are not necessarily transferable even to other jobs within their own branch of the military, much less other jobs outside it. And he wanted to talk about how combat and even life in the combat zone had broken them for other things, which is again a reasonable point to make, as long as he did not elide the point that in a conflict of this size, these specific people were also pretty broken going in, and that is something we can’t really ignore as a culture, either. We’re struggling with how to handle what football does to young men, what hockey fights do, what all the modes of violence do to the bodies of those who participate in them, what it does to shape their minds and personalities and their expectations of the people around them who are not participants, and war is that writ much, much larger. But what we don’t want to talk about, I think, is that sometimes the people we are feeding into our dark machines have been through them already when they were small. Junger writes that whatever a society asks its young men as a group to do, they will become good at, and that might be true (and is worth thinking about what it implies in reverse, and also about young women); but his is not a book about the generation that fought World War II, when somewhat larger percentages of America’s young men were asked to become good at the front lines of combat. For the most part–and Junger doesn’t really want to talk about this–we are asking our young men not to get good at combat. And the ones in his book are the ones who hear our culture, our government, when we say, “Except for perhaps a tiny sliver of you. A tiny, tiny fraction of a percent, we still need to have doing this,” and they say, “I think that means me.” That doesn’t mean they’re horrible people. It doesn’t mean they’re not polite to waitresses or fond of their sisters or any of the redeeming things Junger shows. But it does mean that pretending that they’re identical to the people who signed the enlistment papers next to them and said, “Maybe I could learn to fix airplanes,” or, “I’d be a good quartermaster I bet,” or, “I dunno, Sarge, whatever Uncle Sam wants I guess,” is more than a little disingenuous. Still worth reading about the details, though. Still very much worth reading about the details.

Blair MacGregor, Sand of Bone. Kindle. Discussed elsewhere.

Sarah Moss, Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland. I spent this book rolling my eyes. Sarah Moss appears to have gone to Iceland for a year with two small children and a husband in tow without thinking for even a second that it would be substantially different from the UK. Did you know! Iceland is not the UK! And then even when she figures out what’s going on, she takes forever to figure out why, and sometimes she just never manages it. There are some interesting things about modern Icelandic culture that I slogged through this book to get to, but basically, ugh, sometimes a memoir can make you think, “I…really dislike this memoirist personally.” (Do not put a preschooler in a preschool for three weeks before checking out whether it is a preschool you approve of. Just: no. Don’t do that. Especially when your husband is otherwise a stay-at-home parent and presumably could…go have a look? Maybe? Either you’re so easy-going you don’t care, in which case, fine, be that easy-going, don’t fly into a tizzy when you can finally be bothered to look into things–or else go have a look to start with. It was just this horrible half-assed mix throughout. Ugh.)

Luke Pearson, Hilda and the Midnight Giant. My friend Shannon poked me about this, and I requested it from the library right away, and I brought it home from the library and read it in about fifteen minutes, because it is a kids’ graphic novel. It is a charming and lovely kids’ graphic novel. It has three different scales of action and trying to treat people decently when they are very different from you and bureaucracy. And giants. And a mother who is in some ways very like Lisa from Ponyo. Do want.

Ekaterina Sedia, Moscow But Dreaming. Collection of short stories with a fabulist twist and mostly a Russian twist but not always. Different strengths in the Russian and non-Russian stories. All quite readable, very much Sedia’s vividness shining through.

Peter Watts, Ten Monkeys, Ten Minutes. A shorter collection of short stories, and a very different kind of vivid. I didn’t find them all readable, not for lack of skill, but because Watts’s level of dark sometimes goes over the line into too nasty for my tastes at that moment. However. That thing I was saying above, about Junger not wanting to talk about what we do with the people who have already been fed into the dark machines when they reach adulthood? Peter Watts is willing to talk about that. Peter Watts is by no means going to flinch from that, or pretend that those people don’t need useful places to fit in, don’t need to find happiness and productive things to do with their time. And that’s why I keep returning to Watts’s work even when there are some stories that make me go “oh ick no.” Watts doesn’t worry that people will not be able to see bravery and brokenness at once. He trusts his readers for that, and to see that situations may change who is the functional one in a situation in the blink of an eye.

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